I have been refining my understanding of these two concepts over the years. I have decided to put them in writing today as I’m reflecting on 2020 and all the things we have observed and lived. This post will serve as the basis for some of the posts that I have planned to publish down the road.

Let’s start with Intelligence. Daniel Kahneman defines intelligence in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

“Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.”

Kahneman (1)

I like it a lot for its simplicity. Only three qualities that are innate to us: Reason, Memory, and Attention.

It’s common knowledge that there are various kinds of intelligence. But in my opinion, we have only one type and on top a set of skills to which we have different development levels. Let’s take emotional intelligence as an example. One common definition of it would be the following:

“Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.”

Psychology Today (2)

What gives it away for me is the word ability, which makes me think of a skill. The oxford dictionary of English defines skill as:

“the ability to do something well; expertise.” – Noun.

“train someone to do a particular task.” – Verb.

Skill, Oxford Dictionary

Therefore I would say that emotional intelligence is a skill. In broader terms, I would like to define skill as intelligence put to work. In other words, put your intelligence to use to train yourself, to do something well.

Now, I’m not here just to spit definitions. I would like to add some value with the help of these definitions. What is interesting about all of this is that it relieves us from the thought that we’re not naturally able to do this or that for our limitations. In short, everyone can learn anything. And this is powerful.

Knitting a swatch, a skill that takes both awareness and attention to detail.

Is it in our best interest to learn everything there is? Probably not. It’s even a well-known economic principle that demonstrates that if each one does a set of things well and these things are complementary, we can use our time and resources as a group or even a community when we collaborate to achieve things that individually would be impossible. But the realization that everything is possible is what will differentiate us from the rest. It will make us limitless. Or, in the words of Nietzsche, sets us on the path to the overman.

“Man is a rope stretched between animal and overman – a rope over an abyss.”

Friederich Nietzsche (3)

There are some essential skills that everyone should master to live their lives as a whole person. But I’m not going to dive deep in that today. Today’s post is about what it means to master a skill.

What does it take to master a skill? I got a delicious hint from Herman Hesse in his book “Siddharta”. At some point, Siddharta, the main character in his quest for illumination, speaks with the Buddha.

“And—this is my thought, O Sublime One—no one will achieve salvation through teachings! O Venerable One, you will not be able to inform and tell a single person in words and by means of teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment! The doctrine of the enlightened Buddha contains a great deal, it teaches many to live righteously, to shun evil. But one thing this doctrine, so clear, so venerable, does not contain: it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands. This is what I thought and realized when I heard the doctrine. This is why I am continuing my wanderings—not to seek another, better doctrine, because I know there is none, but to leave behind all teachings and all teachers, and either to attain my goal alone or to die.” (4)

This idea aligns very well with the metamorphosis that Nietzsche describes in his book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” where he describes the path from man to overman. He describes three stages that I summarize here:

  1. The camel: is the one who knows and respects, and adheres to all the rules. Nietzche is referring to moral and social rules and ideals. And the camel puts a lot of energy to do right and live by these rules.
  2. The lion: The change from camel to lion occurs when the individual suddenly breaks out from these rules and starts looking and understanding the limits and the consequences of going beyond.
  3. The baby: The third metamorphosis occurs when the individual finally develops and adheres to his own sets of rules. It creates its own truths, which might be a combination of everything he learned as a camel and lion. But this time he is free from everything, he does things knowing what he is doing. Not because it’s imposed but because he wants to.

The connection now has started to show. What brought it home to me was to read Amyr Klimks’s book “One hundred days between the sky and the sea.” He tells how he crossed from Namibia, Africa to Bahia, Brazil, in an oar boat through the Atlantic. He mentioned that he went from fear to respect and then to confidence as his trip progressed. Again three stages.

One more thing that Nietzche considers, and I feel it is vital: the no skill. When people are simply not interested in learning, and they laugh at the ones who do. Not long ago, I was walking through the various floors of the SF MoMa with a good friend of mine. Neither her nor myself have the slightest understanding of modern art, and we laughed hard at the paintings where there is nothing else than a dot or some stripes of simple colors. That’s the non-skill concept.

So, what does it take to learn a skill? After we acknowledge that we’re at level 0, we have some options. Either we start experimenting and re-creating knowledge that has been already documented by humankind for centuries, or we learn everything there is (the camel phase). In the beginning, we will be afraid of making mistakes and we might fail and feel frustrated. We will have to put a lot of energy into learning and practicing the right techniques. It happens, and we need to put in the work if we want to do it.

As Siddharta said to the Buddha, it is not the doctrine that leads to illumination but the experience itself. Once we have learned the details of our craft, what makes it good and what doesn’t; then we can break out and start bending all of these rules. We treat our learnings with respect, but we gently push the boundaries. Like photographers breaking the rules of composition and lighting we must say “NO” to every rule, so we make our own experience.

Once we gain a real understanding of why those rules were there in the first place, then we can become free spirits (the baby stage). We can now choose when and how to apply our learnings. We have power over our craft. We are confident.

Why did I spend so much time writing about this? As I mentioned before, the direct application of this knowledge is to break free from the stigmas that life may have imposed on you. Despite your circumstances, you are capable of everything.

But this knowledge also helps us reflect on ourselves; it gives us a sense of where we are in our journey and how to move forward. Do we need more knowledge? Do we need more experience? Are we comfortable becoming our very best?

Finally, it gives us a tool for empathy. We now have the power to understand that others might be at different stages in their journey, and it gives us means to better communicate and collaborate with them.

Conclusion

Many people confuse intelligence and skills and for a good reason. Skill is like “applied intelligence.” We must ditch the idea that we’re naturally good or bad at things and embrace the notion that we are just at different stages in our journey, whether arts, crafts, or people skills. Some people have focused more on certain skills and others have focused on different ones.

Finally, we must also become aware of a bias called “The illusion of skill (1).” A significant fraction of people get lucky when they try to perform a task for the first time, and they wrongly tend to believe they’re skilled at it naturally. This bias is dangerous and it takes awareness to get past it and make true progress in life.

References

  1. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 46). Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
  2. Psychology Today, Emotional Intelligence. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/emotional-intelligence
  3. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (A Modernized Translation with a New Introduction and Biography) (p. 8). Kindle Edition.
  4. Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha (Dover Thrift Editions) (pp. 44-45). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.